"Is Keflavik a beautiful prayer or a bright embrace?"
I recently took a short break to Iceland and literally haven't stopped thinking about the extraordinary landscapes and brooding skies ever since. When I realised that there was an Icelandic novel in the shortlist for the Man Booker International prize I had to get hold of a copy. I've read a number of Icelandic crime novels before from Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, but I was interested to see how a literary novel translated from Icelandic into English would fare? Can a novel capture the sense of place that I felt as I left Keflavik Airport for home?
Fish Have No Feet is a family drama which hinges on the character of Ari returning home to Iceland from some years working for a publishing firm in Copenhagen. The story is set in Keflavik, a town on the far edge of Iceland once home to a US Airbase, hamburger joints and dance halls but now left with "nothing but abandoned buildings and unemployment". Keflavik is a metaphor in the novel for a particularly cold and isolated view of Iceland that Ari sees through regretful eyes. Going to Keflavik, Ari remembers, "is always like driving out of the world and into non-existence".
As Ari makes his way back to Iceland he looks back on his own life and that of his relatives before him. Stefansson brilliantly allows the narrative to move backward and forwards through time by anchoring the story through a deep understanding of the culture, "where human life measures itself against the sea" that tightly binds this remote part of the island together.
The novel is dark and reflective in places but for every shadow there is a glimpse of sunlight. Ari is a a Nordic 'everyman' dealing with family, career, pride and self-worth and looking back on a youth in which he didn't know what life was for.
Fish Have No Feet is an brilliantly unforgettable novel set in a completely unique town. Stefannson's prose, and Philip Roughton's translation, is as idiosyncratic as the lunar landscape that surrounds Keflavik - a view that anyone visiting iceland will see for themselves on the transfer from the Airport to Reykjavik. If a novel can ever lay claim to real place-making then Fish Have No Feet puts Keflavik firmly on the map.
I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone
Fish Have no Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (translated by Philip Roughton) published by MacLehose Press, 384 pages.